As war looms in Iraq, the international system is on the cusp of tectonic change. Both the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization are in crisis. So is the U.S. alliance with South Korea. What might all this mean for Japan?

For starters, Japan must abandon the delusion that security can be found in the U.N. With unilateralist sentiment on the rise in America, Japan must also move quickly to shore up its fragile alliance with the United States. Otherwise, Japan could be left to fend for itself in a dangerous neighborhood.

The U.N. Security Council is irrelevant in the growing crisis on the Korean Peninsula because Russia and China possess vetoes. Both these Cold War allies of North Korea oppose sanctions against Pyongyang, even though it is in violation of a raft of international agreements.

The UNSC was also irrelevant during the Cold War because each of the contending superpowers had a veto. After the Cold War was won, there was optimism that the U.N. could work as intended. In 1991, America rounded up a posse to reverse the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and gave it a U.N. hat. The Russians did not veto because they calculated that their relationship with America was more important than supporting their Cold War client, Iraq. But during the war in Kosovo, the Russians sought to protect their fellow Slavs in Serbia. So the U.S. had to use NATO rather than the U.N. as its instrument when it intervened to protect Kosovar Muslims.

Now the world is relearning some old truths about the limitations of “collective security.” Paradoxically, all members of a collective security arrangement must be willing to go to war in order to preserve the peace. The arrangement will break down if members do not share the perception of a threat to their vital interests.

That is what is happening now. The U.S., after winning the Cold War, is by far the dominant state in the system. But on Sept. 11, 2001, it was attacked at home, and its vulnerabilities revealed. Consequently, America concluded that, in the interests of its own security, it could no longer tolerate threats from rogue regimes that acquired weapons of mass destruction — not least because of the risk that such states could sell them to other states or terrorist groups. Hence U.S. President George W. Bush’s branding of Iraq, Iran and North Korea as members of an “axis of evil.”

Iraq is first on the list because it is the easiest target. The growing threat from North Korea shows how hard it is to deal with rogue states once they acquire nuclear weapons. And we should have learned from the example of Germany after World War I that it is impossible to disarm a hostile state unless it is comprehensively defeated and then occupied.

In relation to Iraq, the problem is that three permanent members of the Security Council — France, Russia and (to a lesser extent) China — are blocking U.S. efforts to remove the regime in Baghdad. That’s mostly because they resent U.S. preponderance, and are seizing the opportunity to throw sand in America’s wheels. Only Britain, America’s traditional ally, supports the U.S. and is willing to use force.

So unilateral instincts are rising sharply in the U.S., where there is a long tradition of regarding alliances as entangling. That is not good news for Japan. In East Asia, America’s essential interest is to maintain a balance of power. Its means of doing so during the Cold War was to maintain allies and bases along the East Asian littoral in order to present Moscow with the credible threat of a two-front war. But now the U.S. has other options. It could, for example, seek to maintain a balance by playing off the two East Asian great powers, China and Japan.

The U.S. alliance provides Japan with enormous benefits — nuclear and maritime security in ways that do not disturb Japan’s neighbors. Missile defense could be a future benefit. But Japan must now convince the U.S. that alliance with Japan continues to be America’s optimal choice. That task is even more imperative now that the U.S.-South Korea alliance is in crisis.

Japan has given up its head-in-the-sand approach to security. Indeed, some Japanese are now asking if they can depend on America to protect them against North Korean missiles and weapons of mass destruction. The answer is that Japan needs to make sure that American bases remain in Japan. That way, North Korea cannot attack Japan without also attacking U.S. forces here, and inviting obliteration. But Japan needs to work hard so that America has reason to stay. The looming test is Japan’s willingness to participate in missile defense.

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